Apr 16, 2015Growing, marketing go hand in hand for Ventura County farm
Town & Country Farms is lucky.
Despite the general drought in California, the Ventura County farm has a good supply of well water. Despite general labor shortages in the produce industry, the farm has a reliable crew of workers. And despite the perennial pest and disease threats faced by so many fruit and vegetable operations, the farm doesn’t have a major problem.
“It could be so much worse,” said Darrell Beyer, one of the farm’s co-owners.
Beyer and his father-in-law, Alan Gordon, another co-owner, walked through one of their farm fields in early February, when the busy season was about to start up. Some of their certified organic crops – lettuce, kale, celery, chard – were a week or two away from harvest. They talked about some of their farming methods.
Though they don’t have major pest problems, the bagrada bug can be a nuisance, especially when it gets hot. Being organic, they can’t kill it, but they can irritate it and chase it away, Gordon said.
As for irrigation, they start with sprinklers to give the crop a good soaking, but switch to drip tape after that, which can give them a water savings of more than 30 percent. They have a good supply, but don’t want to use more water than they have to, he said.
Some of their fields are rocky, but when they dig the rocks out they end up with very good soil. Most of their crops are transplanted to the fields from nurseries, Gordon said.
Their main crop is usually kale, sometimes leaf or romaine lettuce, depending on what’s happening in the markets. They also grow chard, cilantro, parsley, spinach, celery and broccoli, as well as bell peppers and cucumbers. It’s all certified organic, Beyer said.
They have no fewer than 20 people working in their fields on any given day – twice as many when it’s busy. The workers are mostly local. Elias Garcia, farm manager, has been growing for a long time and is “terrific at what he does,” Gordon said.
No farm is without its challenges. For Town & Country Farms, a big challenge is finding land.
They lease several plots, all in Ventura County, and are growing on about 150 acres right now. They’d like to expand, but local land doesn’t come up for sale very often – and when it does the bigger farms with the deeper pockets usually snatch it up, Beyer said.
Another challenge is the fact that they’ve only been farming for a couple of years. They’ve had to rely on more experienced people for advice.
“It sounds like we’re headed in the right direction,” Gordon said. “We try to get better every day, to provide high-quality product to those who need it.”
In Gordon’s opinion, however, it doesn’t matter what you’re selling – produce, cars, advertising, whatever – 80 percent of running a business is the same: “Take care of your customers. Take care of your suppliers. Treat your people well. Work hard. That’s the 80 percent.”
Growing produce is only one arm of the family business. The other arm, called City Ag, handles packing, shipping and marketing – not just for Town & Country but other growers as well. Gordon, Beyer and Lianne Beyer – Gordon’s daughter and Beyer’s wife – own and operate both arms.
The venture started in 2011, after Gordon, now 71, sold his previous business. Since he wasn’t interested in playing golf four days a week, he decided to join forces with his son-in-law, now 37, and dive into the world of produce.
“The old man needed something to do and the young man said ‘I’ve got plenty of energy,’ so we decided to put our resources together and see what we can do,” Gordon said.
Though neither man had a farming background, Beyer spent years as a produce broker in Los Angeles – as did his father and grandfather – so he knew how to sell it. He knows markets can fluctuate drastically, and any crop can get hot at any time. But sales windows are slim. You have to offer a little bit of everything, he said.
“You have to make sure you have the right stuff when the markets hit,” Beyer said.
City Ag, based in Ventura, sells produce to supermarket chains, wholesalers and other customers in California and across the country. It’s all certified organic. Many of the growers it sells for don’t have the resources, or desire, to do their own marketing, so City Ag makes sure their produce is packed, stored and marketed properly. The company arranges the freight and invoicing, collects receipts and remits everything to the grower, after subtracting its costs. The service can relieve growers of a “huge burden,” Gordon said.
They started Town & Country Farms in 2013. The growing and marketing arms go hand in hand. Because they know the markets so well, they know what to grow. And because they know the costs and labor that go into growing, they know exactly what their grower-customers are going through, Beyer said.
By California standards, City Ag is a small operation. One day, Beyer would like to see City Ag offices in major cities across the country. Growth is slow, however. Not only is land hard to find, it’s tough to peel growers away from other marketers, he said.
But maybe that’s OK. You want to make sure everything is running smoothly before you grow too fast, Gordon said.